Behind the lens: covering horse racing during the Covid crisis

David Davies, PA
·4-min read

Empty grandstands and cordoned-off parade rings became the new normal as horse racing navigated its way through the coronavirus lockdown.

Furlongs of red tape may have ensured it could return after a brief initial hiatus, but it also presented a challenge for those charged with covering the sport.

Here, the PA news agency’s David Davies reflects on the last 12 months track-side, and the pressures inherent in documenting such a unique period in horse racing history.

“Elbowing our way through the crowds at Cheltenham, everything felt so normal: the packed grandstands and parade ring, the lines of bookmakers. It was as if Covid was happening somewhere else, this thing that was lurking in the background. Even as the week went on and the rumours began to grow, there was a hope we would get to the end of the festival.

Cheltenham
Cheltenham looked very different without crowds (David Davies/PA)

“Following the subsequent lockdown, we returned to a very different environment in June and July. At some of the bigger tracks, the thing that grabbed you was the eeriness of the place: surrounded by these massive, empty grandstands, we almost felt like intruders, like we’d stolen in with a bunch of horses and were ready to have a race meeting all of our own. Then there was the paranoia that came with those initial temperature checks – what’s normal? What if my car was too hot? The protocols soon became the new norm, although it has remained a challenge to find ways to wear your mask without steaming up the viewfinder.

Yorkshire Ebor Festival – Day One – York Racecourse
Every angle had to be covered to cope with growing demand (David Davies/PA)

“Another challenge was the pool situation – numbers were reduced, so those of us granted access had to be aware of those who were not able to join us at the track. Some customers want race finishes, some want jockeys: all of a sudden, we found ourselves feeding a much bigger and more demanding market.

Qipco Guineas Festival – Day One – Newmarket Racecourse
Frankie Dettori had something a science fiction look about him at Newmarket (David Davies/PA)

“There were lots of stories to tell. One particular favourite is the shot of Frankie Dettori after his victory on Eye of Heaven at Newmarket – peering under the horse’s head he almost looks like Darth Vader.

Chepstow Races – June 15
Smaller tracks like Chepstow provided unique opportunities (David Davies/PA)

“Whilst there was that eeriness about the biggest venues, at places like Chepstow on a Tuesday evening, things felt much more normal, and it was easier to get into different places to tell the Covid story.

Chepstow Races – July 3rd
Jockey Rob Hornby toes the line at Chepstow (David Davies/PA)

“At Chepstow, I wanted to get up high so I could show the route to the parade ring, and the letters – ‘T’ for trainer and ‘J’ for jockey – showing each party precisely where they were able to stand. The jockeys had been displaced from their usual dressing room, so they would have to walk through the stands and down to the tracks. You would catch them in different places, and give yourself something different from the norm.

Epsom Races – July 4th
Serpentine stormed to victory amid a very different Derby Day atmosphere (David Davies/PA)

“The picture looking down from the top is one of the iconic pictures of the Derby at Epsom. Normally you’ll get the rows of buses in the background, and Royal Enclosure with all the top hats. You could look through the last 60 years of pictures of Derby Day and not discern a difference, but you’ll always recognise the shots from 2020 because there has never been anything like it. Knowing it’s such a unique occasion does add a certain degree of pressure to get the shot, but it’s not like Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal: it’s the same picture you’ve done so many times before, and yet it’s completely different.

Newmarket Races Day Two – July 10th
The absence of spectators provided some new opportunities (David Davies/PA)

“You do miss the crowds at places like Epsom and Newmarket. But at the same time, it has allowed us to go to different places, and shoot things we wouldn’t normally be able to do. Ordinarily, the only way to take shots like the one through the trees, on a slow shutter speed and a wide-angle lens, would require a step-ladder – and plenty of complaints from punters into the bargain. This year, the picture is clean because there is no crowd in the way.

Epsom Races – July 4th
Trainer Andrew Balding still dressed for the part at Epsom (David Davies/PA)

“Whether it’s the jockey weighing himself in a makeshift tent, or the trainer standing track-side in his top hat and tails and a face-mask, it’s been about taking advantage of the opportunities we’ve got to shoot something different, and to capture such a unique period in time.”

Windsor Races – August 17th
The sun sets over Windsor (David Davies, PA)